It seems that the silent stretches have not yet met their end for I have indeed not posted anything in months, and this silent stretch follows an earlier one. I suppose this year will likely remain so given the unusual circumstances keeping from writing — and it galls me. Especially when I feel sudden fears that I might forget the story, that Toras and Aithen and Elyana might vanish if I do not return to them at once. But then, the mere fact of naming them brings them all back in full, living view of my mind’s eye — I see them and despite the distance, they are still there, doing the things they must be doing, and I feel reassured.
Of course, these instances of relief given me by my imagination do not give you, the reader, any solace or knowledge that the story lives on and that it will come to life again in a form accessible to you any time soon.
So, I decided to share with you the beginning of Chapter 1 of Second Eruption, Book 3 of Conquerors of K’Tara. I would really welcome your feedback on it, in particular on the first scene, which is a very atypical one for me to write.
The soldiers approached the woman’s house, with their younger recruit following apprehensively.
Areto, a lanky, pale-skinned type with red hair asked, “Are you sure no one will know what we are doing here?”
One of the older soldiers said too loudly for the recruit, “Really, Areto. Are you a man or a tree? Soothing yourself will no cause you to break your oath.”
“But what will the commander do if he finds out?”
“As we’ve already explained, Areto, he won’t do nothing. He’s aware that the men come here. In fact, the entire command of the king’s armies encourages it to ensure no one starts getting any funny ideas and soothes himself by raping someone; it’s a practice that’s been around for ages.”
The young guardian pulled his head back in surprise. “Ok, all right. But what if I develop a—”
The veteran replied with a scoffing laugh: “A dependence? Seriously?”
Areto nodded uncertainly.
The tall and imposing Hanne replied this time. “Have you ever heard of anyone developing a dependence to imagined things?”
The recruit shrugged his shoulders, but he still hesitated and asked, “Will she be watching?”
With a long, patient sigh Hanne said, “Her eyes will be closed as she’ll need to enter the Bind to connect to your mind and do what she does. So, you don’t need to worry about her seeing that tiny bulge of yours.”
The company laughed raucously. The young guardian flushed and ground his teeth and balled his fists. But soldiers did that to each other, and his curiosity—as well as his adolescent urges—got the upper hand of him and he blurted a simple “Whatever!”
One of the other two veterans accompanying Areto to visit the elicitors—women who had Sensing abilities but were not members of the Sisterhood and used their skills to provide personal services to men—said, “So are you going or not? We don’ have all day.”
And, after one more nervous look around, the man went in.
Lina Lux Baiula had been listening for alarms for several hours now and she rubbed her head with exhausted motions. Just as she was about to disconnect to go rest for a while, she received an alert from one of her Sisters in Upper Alvinor; the woman had just sighted the Serpent, and it did not appear to be out for a leisurely flight—if she was interpreting the signs properly. Lina Lux Baiula released a long and loud groan then sent a question to her colleague, “Do you know where the Serpent is headed, Alna?”
“It is crossing the Peaks and if it maintains its course, it will end up at Capua, a small town on your side of the mountains.”
Lina felt her pulse accelerate despite her fatigue. She cursed and thanked her Sister then disconnected from the Bind and shot up from the floor of her apartment almost too quickly and swayed a moment. She steadied herself with another curse and ran to the First Barrier’s offices with all the speed she could muster, caring not a whit how she must look to the men who saw her sprinting in her Yellow Sash’s robe.
The woman irrupted into Laiella’s chambers and said, “First Barrier! The Serpent! It has returned.”
First Barrier Laiella Lux Baiula—now a Prima in the Prince’s Guard—had been reading a document with her back to the door. Upon hearing Lina’s unexpected and urgent voice, she spun and shouted: “What did you say?”
“The Serpent, it is making its way toward Capua. We need to send a defensive team there at once!”
“And who communicated this to you?”
“Alna; she’s stationed in Kipoth, a town along the western edge of the Furan Peaks.”
“Is she certain it is going to Capua?”
The woman nodded with hesitantly and said, “Based on its direction and on the elevations in that area, its most likely exit will be at Capua.”
“Damned! Then, raise the alarm!”
Lina Lux Baiula wasted no time and rang the bell from where she stood using a sonactic Binding. But, having spent the night spent listening for alerts, her energy stores were low. She therefore activated the microbial flora on her skin and pulled free electrons from the ground which entered her body through the metallic threads in her shoes. She then generated the flow which she sent toward the bell in the middle of the fortress. Muscles seized throughout the stronghold upon hearing the gong’s urgent clang. Soon, though, the guardians’ training took over, and officers and soldiers began assembling themselves in the plaza. In the village, hearts stopped too, though the villagers knew, from the pattern of the alert, that Horn’s Pass was not in danger—this time—and everyone returned to what they had been doing, though a few did pray that the danger stayed away.
Presently, the Lord Commander rushed into his first officer’s chambers.
“Laiella, did you sound the alarm?”
The clamor of soldiers assembling in the fortress added to the urgency of Laiella’s reply which she gave as she moved toward the prince and the door, “Lina did. The Serpent has been sighted moving eastward. It is expected to come out at Capua. We need to go there now. I hope the quintanals are ready.”
Toras felt his muscles tense up. “They are.”
Laiella did not reply but simply nodded and waited for her commander to turn around and exit.
Once in the plaza, Laiella approached one of the two secundi whose men would be the first to be put to the test as members of a quintanal and said with clear irritation, “It seems you are short a few men, Secundus Yuuto. Where are they?”
Yuuto cursed while explaining that the men had gone into the village to…he did not finish his sentence. Annoyed, he shook his head. His long Pargahni nose would have made his expression comical if not for the seriousness of the situation. Fortunately for Yuuto and the guardians in question, the missing soldiers had just crossed the fortress’s portico atop their vorans and were galloping toward the stables to exchange the animals for their furans, almost hitting a few of their comrades along the way.
Laiella spat a “men,” followed by a “See to it they are ready with the others within twenty minutes.”
Yuuto saw to it, and when the prima re-appeared with her own furan, all fifty furanteams were assembled and waiting to depart, soldiers and their furans standing side-by-side.
Toras sat nervously atop Scorch, next to Laiella, who sat astride Root. She looked hard as stone as she scanned the company to verify their readiness. To her right was Xena Lux Baiula atop a tall, grayish furan; one of the oldest in the pack. Despite its age, the animal was still reliable, but it was also an easier mount for an unseasoned furanrider, though, from the looks of her, she was as ready and willing as anyone else.
This coming encounter with the Serpent would be Laiella’s first, but Xena’s second and Toras’s third. The former hoped the men were ready, while the latter two prayed they were. Indeed, they knew the horror these men had faced and understood the toll it exacted from many.
But one thing gave Toras hope: the re-organization of the Black Guard into quintanals, the specially-trained companies of fifty furanteams each. These men and their furans had been trained more thoroughly and intensely than any other company, ever before. Toras was certain they were ready, though he knew Laiella’s still had her doubts regarding the use of the simulacre and of the projection as training methods.
Just now, Laiella set her eyes on Toras, as if expecting something.
“Will you speak to them, or will I?”
“I hate speeches. I prefer to just give orders.”
Laiella rolled her eyes as she looked away from the prince and toward the men in front of them, while another nine hundred and fifty other pairs of eyes watched from around the plaza or the fortress’s ramparts.
“Men! Your chance to prove yourselves has come. It has been a while since you faced the Serpent, but we will see if the grueling hours spent training against Master Neros’s beast-on-a-swing will have produced the result…the Lord Commander and I expected.” Laiella turned to look at Toras, to make certain he realized that she had just included herself in the responsible party.
“The Serpent is making its way to Capua or thereabout. We are going to fly there and intercept it to prevent it from destroying another village.”
The men stomped the ground.
“Are you ready?!”
The men responded with more stomping and daring shouts.
Toras thanked Laiella then added, “Guardians, this is going to be a difficult flight because we need to get to the Capua within a couple of hours, where it would normally take us two to three. So, setup your watering gear, mount-up and let’s go!”
The flight toward Capua was as demanding as Toras had intimated. The suns were no trouble given that the blue sun was now hidden behind its red twin, but the winds were fierce and blowing from the south. The company pushed the furans as much as possible without exhausting them before the clash with the Serpent, which was sure to happen—it must happen. Turning the valve on Scorch’s watering gear for the second time now so he might have some water, Toras was glad he had ordered everyone to mount the pouches. Normally, the practice was only used for long flights during the warmer months given that the bags weighed the furans down a little.
The quintanal was now some ten kilometers from Capua. The town, a fairly well-to-do town at the foot of the Furan Peaks responsible for much of the wood and wood products sold across the kingdom, was visible in the distance. The teams covered this final stretch of sky with nervous trepidation, including Laiella and Xena who started eyeing each other and praying that their skill with the nebula would prove sufficient. Indeed, they had practiced daily generating it, and they were now able to create it more or less at will. However, the radius of their nebulae was smaller than that achieved by Elyana, and they had had no way to test their effectiveness, at whatever distance.
If only they could have gone back to Urbs Lucis for a fourth; Laiella had been told that her second in command was replicating the Serpent’s mental attacks to train Sisters of every Sash. Well, Laiella and Xena would know whether their nebulae worked when the Serpent tried to fry their brains.
When they reached to within two kilometers of Capua, near Eight after Highsun, Toras raised a hand and everyone slowed their furans until they came to a complete stand-still, flying in mid-air. Toras scanned the area for their foe—nothing. The Serpent might still be there, though, hiding behind the red angry cloud of smoke billowing over the village. The smoke writhed with ire, under the Red Sun’s light, as a screech pierced it and reached for them, sending shivers down their spines.
Laiella raised her voice to overcome the wind, said, “Commander, do you see it?”
Toras started shaking his head just as the Serpent, surrounded by too many rokons to count, appeared from behind the death-bearing cloud of smoke. Toras looked at the Lux Baiulae, who were flying on either side of him and Scorch, with questions and incomprehension marring his face. This moment did not last long, however, and Toras’s heart shouted for action. But what were the rokons doing with the Serpent? Or were they rokons? Shit! Shit indeed. And what did it matter what those things were?
Toras shouted, “Prima, we need to attack. Now!”
Laiella, though she had been as surprised as Toras, had processed what data her vision presented, calculated the risk, and blew her horn to order the formation of ten pentagons. She also sent a thoughtcall to Xena, and as soon as the nebulae were formed, the quintanal resumed its flight. If not for the wind, the officers would have heard the curses and prayers that arose from every single member of the company.
As they approached, the number of rokons became a little clearer through the smoke; there were perhaps two tens. Laiella thought: Let’s hope they don’t have the same abilities as the Serpent. Laiella enhanced her voice this time to shout, “Everyone ready yourselves.” As furans and Humans steeled their nerves and narrowed their eyes, and as the Humans checked their weapons, the rokons split up into two groups, a dozen following the Serpent who was turning south, and the rest—another dozen it seemed—heading for them.
Toras kicked Scorch’s left flank to move him toward Laiella. “Prima, take half of the quintanal as well as Xena and intercept the Serpent; I will stay here with the rest and take care of the rokons. We will follow as soon as we are done and have checked on Capua.”
Laiella shook her head.
“What are you objecting to?!”
Laiella would have kicked Toras for that, but she said, “We do not know whether the smaller ones are natural rokons or capable of the DEBSA like the Serpent. You should keep Xena.”
With the rokons approaching rapidly, Toras did not argue but grumbled and replied, “It goes. Now go! Don’t lose that monster.”
Laiella acquiesced and left at once with her twenty-five to catch up with the Serpent and stop it before it destroyed its next target.
Toras thought he should wish the pursuers―wish Laiella―good luck, but he did not want to shout it, so he cursed himself instead. He looked at his soldiers and wondered how many he’d lose this time. They all knew how to chase away or bring down rokons, but they had always done that from the ground. Now, they were fighting on the enemy’s ground, so to speak. And what if these rokons were capable of generating the DEBSA? I pray Aiala that Laiella is wrong about this.
The prince also prayed that the training they had done against the Serpent’s replica and its projection would help the men and furans keep their fear in check and their wits in place. Toras called Marius, a Lucian-trained medic who had recently been assigned to the Black Guard and sent him down to wait with the pack furans. He then turned toward Xena, and after receiving a nod of readiness from the Red Sash, they flew to meet the creatures.
 Quintanal: A unit of fifty furanteams developed to fight the Serpent